Those of you who have looked at our current season know we're scheduled to premiere a new play next March called Dar al-Harb. The phrase is Arabic, and means "world of chaos" or "world of war" and refers to everything on earth not under Islamic rule. In other words, it refers to us. I felt strongly our theatre should hold up the mirror to nature this season, and in some way reflect our engagement in the Middle East. After reading Lawrence Wright's wonderful book on the events leading to 9/11 called The Looming Tower I thought we might do a stage adaptation of the book, but then I learned the author was doing his own one man show called My Trip to Al Qaeda, which more or less pre-empted my idea. I flew to New York to see the show, and didn't think much of it—I thought it added nothing to the terrific book apart from making its author even more of a celebrity journalist. We have enough of those. But then I remembered that one of the book's central characters, Sayyid Qutb, the grandfather of Islamic radicalism and a profound influence on Osama Bin Laden, had spent a year in Colorado, where he learned to hate America. And suddenly there loomed the subject of our forthcoming play: radical Islam in our own back yard.
Sayyid Qutb was born in Egypt in 1906. He spent his childhood in a small village and wrote a lovely book about it which I've just read. He was brilliant (he memorized the Qu'ran by the age of 10) and was educated in Cairo, where he became a well known man of letters. Later, he became a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and was eventually executed in 1966 after being accused of a plot to assassinate the Egytian president. But in November of 1948 Qutb was an Egyptian civil servant and an Inspector of Schools, a man deeply committed to educational reform. He was dispatched to America to study our educational system, and in the summer of 1949 he enrolled in the Colorado State College of Education in Greeley (which has now become the University of Northern Colorado). The school had a national reputation for being a leader in its field and numbered James Michener among its guest faculty. Michener had won the Pulitzer prize for his Tales of the South Pacific in 1948, a book which was also the basis of the musical, South Pacific, which opened on Broadway about the time Qutb arrived in Colorado. (Tnere's no evidence the two ever met in actual life, though of course in a play anything can happen: it would be some enchanted evening).
I went up to Greeley last week to look at the town and see what I could find about Qutb and the popular culture of the time which so alienated him. Greeley is a lot bigger now, but it still feels like a small town and it does not smell nearly so much of manure as I had been led to believe. You can see, looking at Nathan Meeker's neat tree lined streets, why Qutb at first thought it was a kind of garden, a tidy natural paradise. I went to the library and tracked down the yearbook for 1949 to see what college life looked like then. It looked like a lot of fun to me. II know it's the yearbook's job to send exactly this message, but the pictures were persuasive. Greeley was the home of the Little Theatre of the Rockies, a professional company associated with the school that put on very impressive productions of real plays—shades of THEATREWORKS! There were lots of activities including the Sadie Hawkins dance right out of Dogpatch, and Hellzabruin, the homecoming show which featured a great chorus line of guys in bras and skirts. There were several dancers, many prom queens and one "international night" featuring some students dressed like Arabs in a Bob Hope movie who were serving rice dishes. Sayyid Qutb was nowhere to be seen at this dinner, though he did join the International Club. Very likely he would have been uncomfortable at these cheerful, vulgar school functions.
I had not expected to any trace of Qutb in Greeley, even though he was a well known author by the time he arrived in Colorado. But towards the end of an afternoon in the library stacks I happened on a bound volume of school memorablia from 1949, and when I turned to the next to last page of the bulletin, there he was, leaping off the page in a photograph, wearing a conservative pin striped suit and looking even more elegant than the college president seated next to him. The caption noted "Sayed Kutb" was a foreign student from Egypt, and the photo pictured him handing over a copy of his new book to the college president. You can't see the book, but it mIght have been Social Justice in Islam, the first of Qutb's radical texts, which had just been published. In the light of what we know followed, it was a startling moment to see this dapper man, looking fully westernized, making such a conventional gesture in a standard publicity photo shot. There is no hint of what was to come.
And for me, there was one more starling discovery. The college president making nice with Sayyid Qutb was a man named—Ross. I took that as a sign I have found the right subject for our spring play, Dar al- Harb, or—in Greeley English—Hellzabruin. Stay tuned...